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The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Bergen Reads program launched the “Nooks in Schools” program this month through a collaboration with Barnes & Noble in Hackensack, the Nellie K. Parker School in Hackensack, and the Hawthorne Elementary School in Teaneck. At the Parker launch are, left to right, reading buddies Sheryl Ives, Janet Forer, and school captain Roz Altman; Parker School librarian Terri Lampley; Barnes & Nobel community relations manager Serena McDonald; reading buddy Judith Lebson; project coordinator Beth Figman, and Barnes & Noble store manager Mike Otero.

By all accounts, the Bergen Reads program, a project of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, has been a major success, both for students and for volunteers.

“The reading buddies love the children,” Beth Figman, the project coordinator, said. “Seeing them is the highlight of their day. The kids give them hugs, make them cards. Sometimes I think the volunteers get more than the kids.”

The kids, however, get quite a lot.

Now in its twelfth year, Bergen Reads serves eight public schools – half in Hackensack, half in Teaneck – as well as the Teaneck Community Charter School, added this year.

“We serve about 300 students, in grades K to four,” Figman said, explaining that teachers select the children who need help with reading. Reading buddies include more than 130 men and women (mostly women) from all over Bergen County, the majority of them over 40 years old.

“But we have volunteers in their 20s and 30s,” Figman said. “Some have been with the program since its inception, others for about 10 years.”

Background checks are done for all would-be volunteers, and all must attend a training and orientation session at the federation’s offices. While there are no further requirements, “many happen to be retired teachers or principals who want to keep that connection with students,” Figman said.

She explained that each volunteer typically works with two students, meeting with each for half an hour. Youngsters bring book bags to the session containing materials chosen by their teachers.

While the formula has worked well up to now, this year something new has been added. With a grant from the State of New Jersey’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, Bergen Reads was able to partner with Barnes & Noble in Hackensack to launch a pilot program featuring the use of Nook reading devices. Students at two schools – the Nellie K. Parker Elementary School in Hackensack and the Hawthorne Elementary School in Teaneck – now have access to the e-readers.

“We’re really excited,” Figman said. “Part of the grant was technology based ““ they wanted us to use technology in the schools. We did some research and determined that the best bang for our buck would be to buy Nooks.” For its part – because the reading program bought 10 of the devices – Barnes & Noble agreed to provide volunteers with ongoing training.

Various apps have been preloaded into the Nooks, including phonics and spelling programs, as well as some nonfiction books. Some of the books have a read-and-record feature.

“They’re not meant to replace books but to supplement them,” Figman said, noting that her goal is to introduce students to 21st-century technology. She said that while half of the children at the launch session appeared to have some familiarity with the e-reader, the other half did not.

“They’re from a lower income area of Bergen County and many don’t have access to this technology,” she said. “We want to put them on an even playing field.”

In addition, she said, “Many of the senior reading buddies are also not familiar with the Nook.” In those cases, she said, “The kids will be teaching the volunteers. They’re just more intuitive in terms of navigating.”

Figman said the principals of the two launch schools are “thrilled” by the introduction of the e-readers. Although Bergen Reads owns the Nooks, the devices are housed at the schools, and teachers have been given permission to use them in the classroom.

“At one of the teacher/volunteer training sessions at Hawthorne, Victor Hernandez, a first-grade teacher, was extremely enthusiastic,” she said. “He said it’s just a ‘yes’ all across the board. It is informative, a wonderful investment, and ties in directly with what is happening in the classroom.”

“Technology is not going away,” she added. “It’s part of the kids’ world, so it’s important for Bergen Reads to introduce technology into our program. We had a wonderful opportunity to do that through this grant.”

Reading buddy Miriam Gray of Westwood, who has worked with Bergen Reads for about four years, said the experience is “very personal,” providing enrichment for both volunteer and student.

Gray, who is the former education director at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, pointed out that as a former speech therapist, drama teacher, and Jewish educator, she had little exposure to the workings of secular schools.

“It’s a learning experience,” said Gray, who works with two fourth-grade girls at Teaneck’s Hawthorne School. “I love the school and I love the kids. It’s so engaging to be working with the children. When you walk in, they light up. It’s their special time. You’re there only for them.”

Gray said she brings in supplemental reading material tailored to one of her charges, who wants to be an actress. With the teacher’s permission, she spends the last five minutes of each session reading from biographies of famous actors.

The volunteer said she initially had some reservations about using the Nook. Given the apps that have been preloaded, she said, the device seemed to be more appropriate for younger children.

“By the fourth grade, they’re reading more sophisticated stuff,” she said. Still, she noted, the read-and-record option has been particularly helpful for one of her students.

Gray said she also worried that the machine might inhibit the teachers’ creativity. But when she attended the volunteer workshop and the training session for teachers and second-graders at their school, “they were very excited – not only the kids but the teachers.”

Jack Giorgio, vice principal of the Nellie K. Parker Elementary School in Hackensack, wrote in an email that he believes the introduction of Nooks into the program is “a tremendous step forward. Children love the latest technology…. Nooks put the education component into this technology – or, as I like to say, allow us to compete with video games for their attention.”

Giorgio added that while more and more families are discovering the educational value of this technology, “sadly, not all have the financial means to purchase such devices. The apps and books available grow daily and can be tailored to the exact educational needs of any child. They are a tremendous asset in our educational arsenal and kids love them – what more could we ask?”

He noted that he has worked closely with Bergen Reads for about 11 years “and am always amazed at the benefits to our children and volunteers alike. These wonderful folks make a tremendous difference in many of our children’s’ lives.”